Amid disappointment, Hawkeyes' mental fortitude on trial against Northwestern

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central
After back-to-back losses crushed lofty goals for the 2018 season, Iowa's mental makeup will face its stiffest test on bouncing back. We'll get a verdict Saturday against Northwestern.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Many college football programs personalize their own version, but each slogan, phrase and saying branch off from the same central message. Listen to enough coach and player interviews over an entire season, and you’ll hear them all.

“Snap and clear.”

“Flush it.”

“The 24-hour rule.”

The dialogue following a rough loss can get monotonous in a hurry. But executing those overused mantras is a different story. With so much invested, can players truly wash away the pain on such short notice — from one game to the next — when lofty goals are wiped away? Are there clues throughout the week that guys haven’t moved on, and if so, how quickly can a team get refocused before a tailspin unfolds?

Questions like these are now pertinent regarding the Hawkeyes. Just last month, one-loss Iowa was cracking lists as a fringe College Football Playoff darkhorse. A division-title path was clearly illuminated, beckoning for the Hawkeyes to make an Indianapolis appearance.

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In a matter of days, back-to-back crushing losses zapped those dreams entirely, abruptly bringing Iowa (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten Conference) to a football crossroads heading into Saturday’s home showdown against division-leading Northwestern (5-4, 5-1).

Are those clichés reality, or lip service?

“People hide it better than others obviously,” center Keegan Render said, “but with a little bit of (bad) body language, sometimes you can kind of tell (if guys haven’t completely moved on from a tough loss). You just have to tell them, ‘Hey, come on. Let’s go. We’ve still got practice. We’ve still got games to play and opportunities to go out there and show what we can do.’

“So just focusing on those little details with body language and energy overall is the biggest thing to keeping those people on track. You’ve obviously got some young guys (thinking), ‘Oh man, we lost. Big Ten championship is probably out of the question. What else are we playing for?’ But I think a lot of the older guys and even coaches have stressed there are still games left.”

Players and coach Kirk Ferentz were on a mostly universal front this week when asked about the Hawkeyes’ ability to rebound from this tough two-game stretch, where Iowa fell by 6 points at Penn State and 2 at Purdue. Practice has been energized and upbeat, they reported. Plenty left to play for, they said. No surprise there.

Even so, as the 2018 season hits the final turn with three regular-season games remaining, Iowa’s mental fortitude heads under the microscope.

An emphatic finish could still lead to 10 wins, a respectable bowl and nice push into 2019. But flop and many will point back to the last two weeks as an unfortunate catalyst.

“It’s probably the most important thing — keeping everybody moving forward, keeping everybody upbeat and positive for the rest of the year,” quarterback Nate Stanley said. “Again, you can’t dwell on the past and let it snowball.”

For every season scenario, there’s a previous comp from the Ferentz era — and the veteran coach loves to lean on history. Looking for late-season sputters after promising starts? You’ll want either 2006 or 2014 — two teams that started 5-1 before stalling out with November disappointment and bowl-game blunders.

Both years have been mentioned, multiple players said this week. A few fifth-year seniors like Render, Jake Gervase, Sam Brincks, Parker Hesse and others were around in 2014 as redshirting true freshmen, finding their way but also observing the collapse around them.

That end-of-year demise left an imprint on many.

“We weren’t playing our best football toward the end of the year, and I think that was something that made an impression on us as younger guys,” Hesse said. “We don’t want to be that. We don’t want to be feeling like that when the season’s over. There’s a feeling around here that we want to make sure that we go out feeling good about the way we responded and played.”

Added Render: “The older guys, we know how that feeling was in 2014. You know what that’s like, and I think that’s where we’ve done a good job of getting people back on track and making sure it’s not going to stay with us or linger. It obviously hurts — and there are certain things you wish you could take back or done — but that’s the past. Nothing you can do about it now. Just let it go and keep moving forward.

“We’re obviously 6-3 right now — but at the same time, there are still three opportunities — and 9-3 sounds a lot better than 6-6. It can go one way or it can go the other way.”

Stumbling Saturday would mark Iowa’s first three-game Big Ten losing streak since 2012, but beyond the Hawkeyes’ current dilemma is their recent history with Northwestern. It’s another unkind layer.

The Wildcats have won the last two meetings and are 8-5 in the series since 2005, helping the program shed the football-dormant perception it’s shouldered for decades. Only twice since the late 1960s has Iowa lost three straight to Northwestern.

There are also tales of riveting finishes emerging from disintegrated goals. The 2003 campaign saw Iowa rally for a season-ending three-game winning streak after a Purdue loss. Five years later, the Hawkeyes turned 3-3 into 9-4 with a big final push.

“You’re no longer chasing a trophy or anything,” Brincks said. “You’re playing for the love of the game and for the guys next to you. For a lot of guys, that’s enough motivation.”

But is it enough for a win?

We’ll get a firm verdict Saturday on Iowa’s mental makeup.

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.